The creep of the market into almost all areas of public life has brought with it a steady and damaging growth in corruption. Both the media and the political class insist the UK is largely free of corruption, a claim that no longer stands up.
Transparency International (TI) has released its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012, raising concerns over “recent scandals” in the United Kingdom, exposing “serious fault lines in the country’s system”. As a result, Transparency International Transparency ranks the UK at 17 among the 176 countries and territories in the index and warns that the UK is struggling to remain in the top 20.
Denmark, Finland and New Zealand tie for first place with effective freedom of information systems and anti-sleaze rules “governing the behaviour of those in public positions”. Eurozone countries affected by the financial and economic crisis also under-perform in the index; TI warns that they must corruption-proof public institutions as they confront the financial crisis.
“Despite the passing of the Bribery Act, and measures to improve transparency in government, the perception of experts is that the UK continues to be more vulnerable to corruption than the political establishment is willing to admit,” says Chandu Krishnan, TI’s executive director in the UK. “The steady stream of political scandals has exposed a worrying complacency at the heart of UK politics.”
His organisation calls for urgent action to put a cap on party funding; to introduce tougher regulation of lobbying of government and politicians; and to check the ‘revolving door’ between government and big business. Transparency International’s comments echo the wider analysis in David Beetham’s vigorous and comprehensive report, Unelected Oligarchy for Democratic Audit, featured in OurKingdom on publication in November 2011 and followed up in a series of further reports. Beetham’s report examines how since the 1980s governments have increasingly lost the capacity to control key areas of policy, particularly economic, while the corporate sector as a whole has gained an unprecedented level of influence across all aspects of government and public life. He outlines the ways in which corporate interests exert that influence, through lobbying; financing political parties and think tanks; and revolving doors for ministers, civil servants and corporate business people, in and out of top corporate posts, Whitehall and Westminster, quangos, public institutions and key government posts.
The trouble is that countervailing forces are simply swept away in the market fundamentalist tide that the corporate and financial powers ride. It is important to recognise that the surrender to corporate oligarchy has taken place under governments from all the main parties, even though the current coalition government is promoting it most vigorously. The majority of the press, owned by private proprietors, is tilted heavily in the business interest. Concerns over Transparency International’s trinity of issues are relegated to the realm of the “remote and arcane” (as Peter Wilby, in the New Statesman, characterises Charter 88’s founding activities). The campaigning work of Charter’s successor, Unlock Democracy, on lobbying and party funding occurs in the political shallows.
Take for example just one of TI’s concerns – the unreformed £2 billion lobbying industry. David Cameron once said it was the “next big scandal waiting to happen”; and we have seen repeated lobbying scandals since then, including the messy affair that triggered Liam Fox’s resignation. Yet despite this the government has still to bring forward promised proposals for a statutory lobbying register. The Guardian has revealed (11 April) that despite promises of reform, 100 lobbyists still have parliamentary passes given to them by members of the House of Lords. On top of that, peers remain free to work as professional lobbyists in public affairs, some of whom, as Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy has shown, don’t just work for outside commercial interests in the House of Lords, but even represent foreign governments. Thus Lord Blencathra, the director of the Cayman Islands Government Office in the UK, has been able to vote on and even propose legislation, and to ask questions of government ministers. According to the register of interests of peers’ staff, among the recipients of the 100 passes (supposedly for peers’ assistants) that were instead given to consultants, lobbyists, or senior managers and executives are Edward Taylor, the Daily Telegraph’s head of public affairs, and Richard Ritchie, until recently the director of UK government affairs for BP.
Meanwhile, the bigger picture is that the government’s large austerity cuts, still underway, will further intensify the dependence of government on the private sector, as government departments, local authorities and public institutions, including the NHS, are forced to contract out their services and operations. As Beetham wrote “Instead of a public sphere constituting a separate life domain, with its distinctive values, relationships and ways of operating, it has become an extension of the private market, permeated by the marker’s logic and interests”.
The public need to wake up to just how bad the situation has become.